Sunday, 15 December 2013

The deceptive power of the thobe

Having been in the Middle East for 8 months now, I should really talk about the Thobe - the traditional male dress in this part of the world.

There is certainly a magical power attached to this simple garment and the head dress which accompanies it.  It seems to give the men who wear it a certain authority, a mystery, a power and a magnetism which, when combined with the scent of the Oudh perfume many of them wear is really quite alluring!  They keep their thobes beautifully pressed and pristine white and are so smart every day, wearing cuff links and starched collars.

It is amazing how ordinary the very same guys look without it.  One of my dearest colleagues (who will remain nameless for obvious reasons) went from all conquering Bedouin Sheikh to New York cabbie in one easy step - simply by changing his regal thobe to jeans and T-shirt!!  What a crushing blow!!! He was a mere mortal after all.   But still, at work, in his thobe, he is all powerful.  One day, I walked in on him just after praying, without his head dress.  It really did feel like walking in on a friend in a state of undress!  He didn't mind, of course and wasn't the least bit troubled, but to me, it felt quite wrong!

As many of you know, I have been visiting the local souq since my arrival and have made friends with a group of Yemenis  who are there dancing traditional Yemeni dances to the live music every week (see the picture at the top).   They too wear the Thobe in Doha - This is one of my Yemeni friends, Yazid, in his thobe and ghutra (headdress) during an evening in the Souq earlier this year.

The traditional dress consists of several parts; the thobe itself, the head dress, which has three parts, and the under garments.

The thobe - also known as the thawb, dish-dasha, kandura or suriyah is a long robe - usually white, although it can come in other colours such as off-white, beige, brown or black.

Thobe means 'a garment' in Arabic.  It is usually made from cotton and is commonly worn in countries bordering the Persian Gulf.

The white cotton is very cool for the crazy summer temperatures and humidity.  Now that it is alot cooler here - down to the upper teens in the evenings - I see more guys wearing dark colours in a wool blend.  They look pretty good, especially with a slightly more ornate headdress material.

Underneath the thobe, guys wear a long white version of boxer shorts and a white cotton t shirt/vest.

The headdress consists of the material called a Ghutra, also known as the Keffiyeh, Kufiya or Shemagh, the crocheted cap called a Gahfiya or Tagiya and an Egal, the black hoops which hold the ghutra in place.  This thick black chord was originally used to tie the camels legs together to stop them running away!

The ghutra can be worn in a variety of ways, with or without the egal.  The photo below shows Yazid wearing the traditional red and white ghutra wrapped around his head in a Yemeni style, without the egal.  The pattern and the style can depend on the region.  Wearing the ghutra without the egal is common in Oman and Yemen and also in these countries there is a wider variety of colours and patterns.

In the Persian gulf countries, guys mainly wear white, black and white or red and white.  The red and white pattern, worn here by Yazid, is in fact closely associated with Jordanian heritage.  In Qatar, Qataris themselves wear almost exclusively white ghutras but some of the younger guys will try different styles.

This short video gives a neat demonstration of how many ways the ghutra and egal can be worn and how to wear it properly!   How to wear male Arabic head dress

Going back to the title of the blog, when I say deceptive power, I don't simply mean its magical powers.   The assumption is, if a guy is wearing it, he must be from this region (to be fair to myself, a natural assumption really!).  This assumption was put to the test when a shop keeper in the souq asked me to guess where he was from..... Well I went through every country in the region and I couldn't place him.  Al Jazeera is an incredibly diverse organisation and I know someone from just about every single country in the Middle East and can recognise some national traits such as face shapes, accents etc...... but could I place him?  "I know you're not Egyptian, I know you're not Palestinian, I know you're not Yemeni....." and so it went on until I was completely stumped.

"I'm from India" he said!!!!   I felt extremely foolish and after he told me, of course it was obvious!  But  I'd been blinded by the deceptive power of the thobe - assuming that he was from this region.  He was wearing it because it was expected as he worked in a tourist shop in the souq.

There is so much one could write about the regional variations of male traditional dress and I must admit to learning quite a bit about Yemen in particular - from my new friends.  But I will save this for a future blog about Yemeni culture, dance and fashion!  I also intend to write a piece about the fascinating world of women's attire here in Doha..... but I need to do some homework first (and I don't just mean reading Wikipedia!!)...... that one is for the new year!!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

I will stay calm....inshallah !

I'm feeling a little guilty ....actually on two counts - one because I haven't written a blog for a while (six weeks I think!!) and two because I've just realised I've been asking some of my Muslim colleagues to defy the Quran !  ...... not deliberately and I hope Allah will forgive me!

It all came about following a conversation with a Palestinian colleague some weeks ago, who was explaining the real meaning of 'Inshallah' to me...... as most of you know, it means 'God willing'.  However, my friend was discussing the different ways in which people use the phrase and how, in fact, it is often abused.  He explained it thus:

A person should only use 'Inshallah' in the context that they fully intend to do something and it will  happen if God wills or it is in his plan.  The only reason that it wouldn't happen would be if God intervened somehow.

He went on to say that some Muslims will use 'inshallah' as a 'get-out' clause, almost as if to say 'if I can be bothered' and this, he stressed, was a total abuse of the phrase and he felt it was used by many without really considering its true meaning.

So, carrying this insight with me, I began to notice 'inshallah' being used more and more, particularly by rather less than competent and, it has to be said, less than committed project managers whose activities and deadlines clearly did not fit into God's plan, because they mysteriously never seemed to be able to deliver!  The pattern would start with me asking a question such as "the floor of the portacabin will be laid by tomorrow, wont it, because we have furniture arriving?"... and the reply would inevitably come.... "inshallah".   Tomorrow comes and, of course God has intervened and there is no floor.

So, this happened rather too often, until I became irritated and eventually started to tell particular individuals that they were no longer allowed to use 'inshallah' in my presence and I only dealt in certainties!! :-)  They all found this rather amusing, and of course took absolutely no notice of the crazy woman.

I had a further conversation about this with a Syrian friend who was also rather fond of using the phrase and was, himself, a little less than 100% reliable (although absolutely lovely).  His view was that I should calm down and consider 'inshallah' no different to 'OK' or 'sure' and I really shouldn't take it too literally.

In the end, we did get the floor back in place, the furniture did arrive, I managed to successfully, and relatively smoothly, move the Al Jazeera Network Creative team in to their new portacabin this week, and we celebrated in rather grand style with a 'welcome breakfast'.  Coffee and Cake the Arabic way.......

Interestingly, I have now read that, in fact, the Quran requires that Muslims must say 'inshallah' after every statement of intent to do something.  This is obligatory.  So I guess I will have to let it wash over me and accept that my colleagues are simply doing their best to be in tune with God's plan for life, the universe and everything  ...... including portacabins.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Ramadan Kareem!

With Ramadan approaching, the dilemma for me as a non Muslim was to fast or not to fast?  To be honest, I didn't think about it for long and never had a doubt - of course I would fast.  Since moving to Doha, I've been determined to assimilate ..... as far as a western, non Muslim, non Arabic speaker can!   As regular readers will know, I prefer haggling in the Souq and dancing with the Yemeni boys to drinking with ex-pats in hotel bars and Ive also started learning Arabic.

There were a few reasons for committing to the fast - not just to continue my immersion into the local culture, but also because I wanted to share the experience with my Muslim colleagues at work.  Not only that, but I also wanted to test my own commitment, my self discipline and learn something about myself in the process.  Lets face it, for a large part of the fasting time, I would be alone - particularly on the weekend - no one but me would know if I was breaking my fast - so the commitment needed to be total - for myself.

As all good Muslims know, Ramadan, the most holy of months, is a sunrise to sunset fast - where nothing at all is to pass the lips, including water. It is not simply about food and drink though - Muslims also refrain from smoking, sexual relations, swearing and sinful thoughts - in fact colleagues at work also refrain from being critical of others and try to stay calm and use the time for quiet reflection and further prayer.  Ramadan lasts a month and is based on the sightings of the crescent moon.

In practical terms, in Doha, many venues close for the entire month - particularly those which offer alcohol and others only open after 7pm.  Even the shopping malls pretty much close down between 1pm and 7pm - but they make up for it by being open until 2am!.... and the atmosphere is wonderful then - with families all coming out to play after their evening Iftar (breakfast).  Working hours are also reduced - Al Jazeera move to a 6 hour working day and they have a Ramadan tent which offers employees Iftar at 6.30pm into the evening (see photo).

So on 10th July at 3am, I got up and had my first Suhoor, (the meal consumed before fajr (dawn)) - which for me is porridge with milk, bananas and chopped dates and a black lady grey tea!  There are no strict guidelines to when or what you should eat for Suhoor, as long as it takes place before the first prayer of the day (At the moment, this is around 3.30am) ....   Some colleagues of mine stay up til midnight or 1am and have their Suhoor then, and at 3am they drink alot of water.

I've been setting my Suhoor alarm every day for a couple of weeks now and I quite enjoy it.  I have my porridge, and then spend a few moments standing on the balcony listening to the call to prayer - which is magical at that time of the morning, and then spend the next 15 hours consuming nothing at all until around 6.30pm when I hear the call to prayer and prepare my Iftar.

I follow tradition in breaking my fast with three dates, as the prophet, Muhammad did.  I have mine with three spoons of yogurt.  Muslims will usually then go to pray before starting the next course, which for most people Ive spoken to is soup.  It is supposed to help the stomach open up and prepare it to receive more food.  This was also what I had with Raeda (a work colleague) and her family when I went there for what I can only describe as proper full on Iftar - absolutely amazing spread of food!!  Normally, at home, I would follow the dates with a small salad and then have something a little later such as rice and lentils or noodles.

Iftar with Raeda's family was so wonderful - but because we hadn't eaten for 15 hours, it was difficult to eat much of what they had prepared, despite the fact that it was all so delicious.  All the nations of the world were represented - Lasagna and Cannelloni, Cauliflower cheese, Arabic wheat based dishes with chicken, tomato and bean based dish, homous and flat bread, and something which Ive never had before - fresh dates!  They were gorgeous and so sweet!  Then later after much resting and looking at some family photos, they brought out some traditional arabic pastries then fruit salad - it really was like Christmas.....well in terms of the amount of food and the generosity and warmth.

Afterwards, Raeda and I went out to the local hypermarket and had some fun window shopping for dresses and jewellery and then did some food shopping - which is not so easy when you've eaten alot!!

Anyway, I'm sticking to it so far and actually find it pretty easy during the week when I'm busy with work, not quite so easy on the weekend - but I have remained true to myself and have not broken the fast at all - even when alone.  The hardest thing is the lack of water - I don't miss the food at all and you will know that I'm used to going without food with my intermittent fasting - in fact I think it is doing wonders for my skin - its never looked so good!! ....but not drinking water for 15 hours is tough - especially when I'm running around at work in air conditioning inside and 45 degrees outside..... But then Ramadan isn't about having an easy life, it is a test and one which I am relishing - despite my non Muslim credentials.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

It pays to linger longer in the Souq

The beauty and energy of Souq Waqif keeps me returning each week.....of course for the dancing, (see previous post!)..... but mainly because it has such an electric atmosphere - even during the week when there is no music.

The heat of the day lifts the aromas of coffee, spices and perfume and when the evening comes, the searing heat gives way to a soft warmth, mingling the aromas with the scent of the shisha.   People from every part of the globe come to eat, shop, chat, smoke and haggle of course!

I had my first experience of the haggle this week and what fun it turned out to be!  The shop keepers are friendly and not at all pushy - at least the ones I visited.  Now that I can speak a little Arabic, it helps.  I would go into a shop and say "as-salaamu alaykom" (Peace be with you) and would get "wa alaykom is salaam" in reply.  ......Yes I am conversing, this is great!!!!

 Generally speaking, they leave you to browse - the odd one or two would follow me around closely which I find a little irritating, but its all good natured, so its fine.  There is alot of tat in the shops, but some of it is actually really nice stuff and some of it is alot of fun too.  Anyway, I went in and out of a dozen shops, all selling pretty similar stuff and then I went into a really tiny shop, which again sold very similar stuff but this time, I lingered.

The shop keeper made me laugh by pulling the most apalling stuff off the shelves to show me - the worst being a turqouise and gold plastic Mosque alarm clock, which wakes you up with the Moazzim (call to prayer).  At this point I looked at him and said "that is awful, truly awful, in fact its horrible....... no Ill go even further, its nasty, really nasty!!!".  There was only one other customer in the shop - a Spanish guy, who then joined in and said "she's right, it really is terrible".... and we all fell about laughing!!

At this point, his colleague comes in from outside and he goes to fetch us all some tea.  So I sat for 30 minutes or so with the shop keeper and his Spanish customer, who it turned out was a Qatar Airways captain.  When I told him I worked for Al Jazeera, he said that he had been interviewed by them 21 years ago, during the first Gulf War (which actually would be a bit difficult as the Gulf War was 1991 and Al Jazeera wasnt born until 1996)...... perhaps he meant another Arabic Channel.  Anyway, he claimed to be the youngest pilot in the first Gulf War which is why he was interviewed.  

Not that anyone around here was particularly impressed, as you can imagine..... "why would he want to be involved with that?" was most people's reaction.  Of course we're so conditioned in the west to view these guys as heroes (has never been my personal view) without questioning the bigger picture....... anyway, that's something for another blog.... otherwise Ill be going all Ronnie Corbett on you!! (For anyone who doesnt know who that is, Im really sorry - youll have to look him up..... something to do with going off at tangents and taking a very long time to get to the punch line) !!

The punch line for me, was that after my tea, some delightful conversation, and choosing a few fun gifts to take home to my family, I charmed my way to an extremely good deal while making some new friends....... Doha and its amazing Souq truly are wonderful!!   It always pays to linger ;-)

Friday, 28 June 2013

24 hours in Bahrain

With my Dad's 70th birthday half way through my contract in Doha, I decided to take a few days to fly back to the UK to surprise him.  However, what I didn't realise is that my efforts to surprise my Dad, would turn into a nice surprise weekend break in Bahrain for me!... here is what unfolded ... 

After leaving Doha last night on what should be a 9 hour flight, I am sitting in a hotel in Bahrain, waiting for our BA crew to get enough sleep so that we can continue on to London.... yes that does sound a bit bizarre but true!  After a smooth enough take-off from Doha at 11.25pm, we landed in Bahrain last night at 1200 midnight - we'd had terrible turbulence and a dreadful landing with lots of bangs and things falling out of overhead cabins, it was so rough!  I'm usually a very relaxed flyer but even my feathers were a little ruffled when I saw the cabin crew hurrying up and down the isles looking very stressed and concerned.

The plane was stopping at Bahrain on the way to London to drop off and pick up passengers.  We sat waiting for people to get on and I was chatting away to a lovely group of Canadians, some for whom this was their first trip to the Middle East.  One hour turned to two and then the Captain told us there had been hydraulic failure and they were trying to fix it.  What they didnt tell us at that point, was that the failure had taen place in the air before landing, which is why the landing had been so tricky.  

An hour later - the Captain announced that it would take much longer to fix and we would need to disembark while they de-powered the plan to get it sorted.  Another hour in the airport (a quirkly little airport with some interesting tourist exhibits), they said the plane was beyond quick repair and we would not be going anywhere until tomorrow and they would put us up in a hotel. 

It seemed the high level migration plan was in place - nice hotel lined up etc etc, but the detailed migration plan left much to be desired - no one on hand to tell us where to go, no directions, no information about baggage, etc.  After some very loud shouty shouty in very angry Arabic by one particular individual, while the rest of us remained stoically stiff upper lipped about the whole thing and just happy to be alive, we were sent to the immigration area - where there were no officials to check us through!

After half an hour, a member of the Village People turned up to shout - "where are your landing cards?" there was even more shouty shouty while the crafty ones, me included felt a 'go with the flow - do what the man say' approach was probably for the best.  

It was a bit like a scene out of 'Its a Knockout'- where people suddenly raced to the little landing card booth, grabbed a card, searched in their bag for a pen, tried to find a flat surface on which to lean (lots of competition for those) and then who could fill it out the quickest and get to the front of the line?

We had been told the Regency Hotel would send a bus with 30 spaces - for 160 people - and the hotel was around a 20 min drive from the airport - so you could see people "doing the maths" !  Now, here is where I win the prize - i never travel with checked baggage and on this occasion, I was the only one.  By the time, they'd all got through with their bags, I'd already spoken to the hotel , located the bus driver and told him he should probably start lining up taxis so he didn't have a screaming mob standing at arrivals wanting to kill him.  This he duly did, clearly acknowledging my authority... obviously!.. and I got into taxi no. 1.  

 The taxis then raced through Bahrain, clearly inspired by the recent Grand Prix - I was in a hideously top heavy London cabesque taxi which the driver delighted in taking around very sharp bends at very high speed.... and his air con wasn't working ! ;-) 

But my cunning plan worked because I arrived right at the front of the queue to be met by the most hideously bureacratic check in process known to man.  Signing forms for the hotel room, meals, transport, scanning of passports, filling in name and room number on another sheet "doh!"... 

As I stood there, I could sense the line behind me growing - and joked with the other lucky ones at the front that we would emerge the next morning and see them still standing in a line, checking in just in time to be collected for our flight the next day!!! 

So eventually, after a badly managed decant of 160 tired and emotional passengers (and yes, I was going through all of the things they could have done better - simple things like stationing staff at each key point of the process to explain face-to-face.... blah blah blah, giving us meal vouchers etc etc etc) we were finally looking at getting some rest in a really really nice hotel..... and it was now 5am.    

I asked about breakfast "oh yes, you get free breakfast" - what time? "6am ..." :-) so funny.  "Not only that ma'am, you will get free lunch and free dinner tomorrow evening!....... ah, OK, so we're not leaving in any hurry then!!  This is because, not only would the crew need a certain number of hours rest, but we then hit up against the overnight Heathrow flight ban which means the earliest flights can land is 6am.  So this would mean a take off very late the following night at the earliest. 

Rather than get upset about it, I made the most of the time, writing an assignment for my OU course, which was due in the following day, eating lost of fabulous free food and popping out to the nearby Souq after dark..... which sadly had real difficult competing with the marvellous Souq Waqif in Doha, the King of Souqs!   

I did eventually get to see my Dad and was in time to surprise him for his birthday - it was a lovely couple of days with my whole family, which I'll remember forever..... plus I got the added bonus of a mini Middle Eastern getaway in the bargain!!!

As my dear colleague at Al Jazeera told me "Keep smiling, this is God's choice".... if he also chose the hotel, I must congratulate him, it was excellent - if you're ever in Bahrain, stay at the Regency Intercontinental !!

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The secrets of the Souk

Ive been in Doha now for two months and I feel myself falling under its spell, largely down to my weekly trips to Souk Waqif, a place so full of atmosphere and life, where tourists and locals stroll the cobbled alleyways, and maze of tunnels to buy anything from camel key rings to carpets, slippers to swords fact pretty much anything you can think of...... even, sadly, live animals and birds.  It's not just a tourist attraction, locals too buy all sorts here.... cooking pots, spices, nuts, dates, fabric, clothing, blankets etc etc..... I could go on!

Despite what the photos suggest, this incarnation of the Souk has only been in existence for a few years.  It was the site of the original Souk when Doha was a small village and the Bedouin would bring their products such as camel's milk and dates to trade.  In 2004, the Sheik decided to restore the area to its former glory and they did such a good job, it really does feel like stepping back in time.

The most wonderful area for me is the spice market - a labyrinth of
little shops selling every aromatic herb and spice you could wish for.  If only this were a scratch and sniff blog!  Imagine a soft warm blanket of coriander enveloping your senses as it bakes in the heat of the sun, waiting for the pigeons to feast.

Proving that this isn't just a place for tourists, the restaurants and cafes are heaving with locals, dining on dishes from around the middle east and other parts of the world.  Kebabs, tajine, humus and babba ganoush, followed by a relaxing puff on a shisha pipe while watching the rest of the world go by.

For me, though, the best thing about the Souk is Thursday and Friday nights...... live music every weekend.  Frame drumming and tablas setting the most incredible and complex beats to get the audience of 99.9% men - most in dishdashas (or thawbs) - up on their feet to dance......... and dance they do!!

What I love most about the atmosphere is that it is not drug or drink fuelled (neither are allowed here).  They just know how to have a good time, without any leud behaviour, drunken brawling or any kind of  aggravation with one another.   They hang out with their friends, and get along with people of all nationalities together - Qatari of course, Lebanese, Yemeni, Egyptian, Indian, Pakistani, Palestinian etc ....and the odd westerner, although I have to say, they are few and far between in amongst the I like to call them....... Soak up the atmosphere!

I go along and stand in amongst them watching and listening to the music.  It starts around 8ish and goes on until 1130pm.  It is usually around the mid-way break that the real party starts, when the local guys start dancing together at the back - always in the same spot.

There are a few different styles - they told me they were traditional Yemeni dances.  It usually starts with 3 or 4 of them dancing in sync and then others join until there is a group of around 11 or 12 and sometimes more.  Witness the dishydashas in action !

Having been for the last few weeks, watching from the side-lines, generally swaying along, encouraging.... and videoing them! ...... last night, I was pulled in to dance by one of dishydashas.  It is clearly unusual for a woman, not to mention a western one, to join in with their dancing and no sooner had I started my tentative steps into joining their troupe, but I suddenly had a tight circle of guys around me clapping and whooping.....and videoing me!   It felt like an acceptance ritual - Ive seen the same guys down there dancing most weekends and one or two who know a bit of English have talked to me a little..... but this time, there I was dancing alongside them.

When the dance was over, they all gave me a group hug.... and the funny thing was that it didnt feel in the least bit threatening.   I feel safer here as a woman out on my own, than I would walking down a typical British suburban high street on a Friday night.  Of course, I know there are many reasons for that, too many to delve into here, but for now I'm just soaking up the atmosphere, the warmth, and the beat of my new home.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Dear Doha Diary week 4

I'm just back from my weekly recycling trip to one of the only recycling facilities in Doha, or so it seems.   The lack of recycling facilities here was one of the first things I noticed and it instantly made me very uncomfortable.  In the UK we are so used to being able to recycle everything from paper to plastics, cardboard to cans, even compost our waste and I've been doing that since I can remember.  Recycling is as natural as breathing and not to be able to do it is psychological suffocation...... impossible to tolerate.

So, rather than throw my plastic bottles in the bin, I kept them until I could find a way of recycling them.  And do they use alot of them?  Oh my goodness......particularly at work - they buy bulk loads of little bottles of mineral water and the kitchen guys hand them around to the offices all day - they must get through hundreds every day.  And there are no facilities for paper recycling.  An American colleague of mine enquired into getting a contractor to provide recycling facilities and they quoted £3,000 per month to supply bins and a collection.

Unfortunately, given all the other change going on at Al Jazeera, this is not a priority for them at the moment so is a hard sell.

But I decided I must at least do something on an individual level as a start.  So I researched recycling facilities in Doha on the internet and came across Sustainable Qatar - an independent volunteer based organisation to promote environmental awareness within the Qatar community.  On their site, they list just two placed for recycling - Katara Cultural Village which is in West Bay, far from my hotel, and Alrmailah Family Park, opposite the corniche, about 40 minutes walk from my hotel.  So every Saturday morning, I get up early to avoid the heat, pack all my recycling into my rucksack and bag and head off to the park to recycle it.

The great thing is that they dont just have recycling bins, but there is also a charity bin there too.  And Ive seen more of these in other locations along the Corniche, so there are some promising signs!

So far, the count is 72 individual items including 44 plastic bottles, 19 misc plastic containers, 3 cans and 1 egg box, plus a few other bits and pieces!

The first couple of times, i looked inside the bins and it looked like I was the only one using them, but today the plastics bin was almost half full!!  My challenge will be taking that walk in the hot summer months when the temperature creeps up towards 50 degrees.  Ive been told that its not possible to even stand outside, let alone walk 40 minutes!....  Well I will cross that bridge when it comes........ as my hotel manager so sinisterly put it yesterday, "...we are waiting for the pizza oven to come!!"

Saturday, 20 April 2013

It never rains but......

As you might expect, rain in the desert is rare, so as a committed 'bad' weather enthusiast, it was in my top 5 sacrifices when deciding to come and live in Doha for a while.  In fact, my sister in law asked me that very question at a family dinner to celebrate my departure..... "What will you miss the most?...other than family and friends of course?"....... "Rain and cycling" I replied,  rather assuming I'd have to wait until my return to the UK for any significant precipitation!

This was confirmed by all my early conversations with anyone I could find - taxi drivers, hotel receptionists, shop assistants and work colleagues..... "does it rain here.... at all..... ever?".  The response was pretty universal.... "not really, its more like mist than rain", or "can't remember" and then this week, I mentioned to a colleague that it was forecast to rain heavily the next day.  She said "oh reeeaaaally?" as if I'd told her the martians were about to land in the Al Jazeera car park or that we were about to experience an earthquake...... now who would believe that??!

"So when did you last have heavy rain?", I asked her.....   "errrrrrr.....mmmmm....errrrrr......oh, yes it was......... two years ago!"  What?  Two years ago?  OK, so proper rain here is indeed rare.  So the question was, was the forecast right?  Would the long awaited downpour really come?

That night, just after midnight, it did indeed come.....along with an impressive thunder storm, and the most incredible lightning I'd ever seen, lighting up the whole city.  So I rushed for my iphone and stood on my balcony (maybe not the best idea in such a violent storm) and captured this photo.  The storm didn't last too long but was fun while it did!  

It reminded me of when I was a child and my Dad used to take me to the window during a thunder storm to watch the lightning and count the seconds until the thunder, to measure how far away the storm was and whether it was heading our way.  I think it was my Dad's enthusiasm for storms and bad weather which rubbed off on me.  To the extent that in another life, I'd love to be a storm chaser in the USA, following tornadoes and hurricanes around the country.  There is something incredibly thrilling and strangely comforting about the raw power of nature.

But that one storm was not it.... the next day, I was on the AJ balcony, the heat was incredible and humidity building and the sky was heavy with tension.  I could see another storm in the distance heading our way....the wind got up and became quite ferocious.  The mixture of the wind and the heat was like opening a fan oven door..... and then one or two big drops of rain started appearing on the balcony floor, then a few more and more until the deluge.......... I went undercover.  The funniest thing happened...... a dozen or more staff, mainly brits, appeared running onto the balcony like excited kids....squealing, feeling the rain, taking photos of it !!  OK, now I believe its rare. 

However, it wasn't like ordinary fresh, sweet smelling, cleansing rain - no, this was a strange warm wet sludge.  The wind had whipped up a sandstorm which then got washed down with the rain as wet dust so when I went back inside, I noticed little sandy dots all over my shoes and top.  When I went outside to the car park later, all the cars were smeared with a fine covering of sludge.....heaven knows what that does to your paint job! (The cars looked exactly like this one, pictured following a similar storm in Phoenix, Arizona... ).

So what next? .... well, it would be nice to think that the unpredictable weather might continue, but alas,  it looks like wall to wall sunshine for the next week at least....... what a shame...... only another two years to wait.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Dear Doha Diary week 1

To say that finding myself in an Al Jazeera Media Network board room in Doha, experiencing an earthquake was a surreal feeling, would be quite an understatement.  But that is exactly where I was today.  At first, I thought someone with very heavy feet had entered the room, but when it went on for quite a few seconds and then the heated debate gave way to looks of slight concern, people feeling the table and looking at each other....somehow afraid to ask.... and then the shaking got a little more vigorous..... a few of us started to say.... "is this an earthquake?".  One colleague even said, its probably an earthquake in Iran.....should we leave the building?   But the consensus was that we were OK and should stay put.  Which we did...... and it was......

So I went on to twitter immediately and within 2 mins people had started to post about feeling the tremors and within 5 mins a report appeared that a 7.8 magnitude earthquake had hit Iran but had been felt across the middle east, Pakistan and India.  Buildings in Doha city centre were evacuated as a precaution but I don't think there was any real damage here.

So how did I find myself in this potentially precarious position?.......

Well, there I was, minding my own business, jogging along - or should I say cycling along quite nicely through life in London - when out of the blue came an opportunity which I simply couldn't ignore...... to work in Doha!!    Within 6 weeks of learning of the opportunity, I was on a plane from London heading towards a new life and new experiences!!

Doha is the capital of Qatar - the little 'date' shaped country, bordering Saudi Arabia which protrudes into the Arabian Gulf and is a fascinating and rapidly growing city 

And the opportunity?  To work for Al Jazeera on an extensive programme of change across their Media Network.  It is exciting to work for the organisation at such a critical time as their reputation is growing and they extend their Network to include Al Jazeera America.

Interestingly for me, as a sustainability champion, they purchased Current TV from Al Gore, climate change guru, which gave them the US distribution infrastructure they needed.  Al Gore came under enormous criticism for selling to Al Jazeera, owned by the oil rich Qatari Royal Family.

However, what alot of people don't know, is that Qatar are pioneering renewable energies.............. it is estimated that 80 percent of Qatar's total water desalination process will soon be powered by solar energy.  And lets face it, they have enough sun!...... the weather forecast is an interesting experience...... what is "scorchio" in Arabic?  In fact, each square km of land in Qatar receives the equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of crude oil in solar energy.

However, there is still a long way to go as Qatar has the highest carbon footprint per capita than any other country in the world.  The number of cars on the roads here is crazy, as is the driving, which thankfully I don't have to do.  (Not everyone drives like this guy!  Its an interesting way to conserve your tyres - Bernie Ecclestone take note!!).....   But the downside is, there is little opportunity to cycle - if you value your life!  Ive only seen two people on bikes,  although I hear there is a park where some people go to cycle for leisure.  They are however, building a metro here in Doha which it hopes to be ready by 2016, which will clearly be essential to the influx of visitors in 2020 for the World Cup and will go some way to reducing their carbon emissions in the city.

The other thing Ive noticed is the lack of recycling and my hotel doesn't have towel washing policy - you know, the one where you put the towels in the bath if you want them washed...... It doesn't matter what I do, the towels disappear every day and are replaced by new ones....  will try and have a word with them.  Also,  I don't see any recycling bins anywhere in the office, in the hotel or in shopping malls - I think there may be a few recycling points around the city but its not generally practised by individuals.  I've only been here for a week, so am still at the observing and exploring stage - I'm sure I'll find out more as I go along.

My hotel is fortunately located in the old town - it does mean I'm in close proximity to a number of mosques - which is all very fascinating until the 5th day of the 4am call to prayer....... funny, I hadn't noticed that loud hailer sticking through my bedroom window!!  Despite that (and I'm sure I'll get used to it.......eventually), it is a good place to be as I am very close to the Souqs, which are wonderful places.  I can get all my groceries there as well as almost anything you can think of from spices to scarves, flip flops to fishing rods and an enticing array of restaurants, cafes and ice cream parlours.... as well as the shisha cafes and coffee shops.

I took this photo a couple of evenings ago outside Souq al Ora which is opposite my hotel.  Souq Waqif, just down the road, is the best Souq in town as it has been renovated back to its original glory days and has a fabulous atmosphere, particularly in the evenings. I will report back on the delights of Souq Waqif in a future post.

There is alot to experience and I look forward to sharing it here.......